Radegund of the “Wagnerian” name was the daughter of a king of Thuringia in those tumultuous days when other Germanic peoples, having swept across the boundaries of the crumbling Roman Empire, were establishing themselves in the old Roman territories.
Clovis, head of the Franks, had taken over Gaul and accepted Christianity. His son, Clotaire I, was also a Christian, but still much of a barbarian. In 531 he invaded Thuringia and brought home spoils and prisoners. Among the prisoners were Radegund, then aged 12, and her brother. The king saw to it that she was properly raised in France. She grew up into a beautiful and devout young woman. Clotaire married her when she was 18.
But King Clotaire was a flagrant womanizer. He married five times, and it is likely that some of his spouses were still living when he wedded Radegund. The young queen tried, nevertheless, to fulfill her duties as a King’s wife, but at the same time she cultivated a serious prayer-life and spent much time taking care of the poor and sick. For example, she founded a hospital for lepers, tended them with her own hands, and on occasion even kissed them. A friend who saw this warned her that henceforth nobody would dare kiss her. “If you don’t want to kiss me,” she replied tartly, “I really do not mind at all!”
The king sensibly refrained from interfering with his wife’s charities, and for six years she patiently bore his infidelities. But when Clotaire killed her brother, that was the limit. She asked his permission to leave the court, and she persuaded the bishop of Noyon to confer on her the religious veil. He also blessed her as a deaconess, an office of service for women, not clearly sacramental, that would be abolished in western Europe in the later Middle Ages. After six months of penitential life, Radegund renewed her program of charities.
Ultimately she moved to Poitiers, and there founded a “double monastery” (a section for nuns and a section for priests), choosing a qualified nun as its abbess. Not long afterward, the king demanded that his separated wife return to court. Fortunately, Bishop Germanus of Paris was able to persuade Clotaire to leave her alone. It is said that the Frankish monarch died repentant of his sins. At least he did bring himself to contribute to the upkeep of his wife’s monastic foundation.
In her Poitiers abbey, the erstwhile queen set high religious standards. Well-educated herself, she insisted that the sisters learn to read, spend two hours a day in study, and learn by heart the 150 psalms to be chanted in the divine office. Because of Radegund’s interest in learning, her monastery was a rendezvous for scholars. It likewise became a center and agency for peace. Whenever the saint heard rumors of war (and these were battlesome days), she would communicate with the belligerents and urge a peaceful settlement. Her royal position gave added authority to these pleas.
The queen loved to enrich her abbey church with relics of the saints. They were a constant reminder of the union between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. When in response to her special request, Emperor Justin I sent her from Constantinople, cased in rich reliquary, a portion of his relic of the True Cross, Radegund received it with devout solemnity. It was for this reception that St. Venantius Fortunatus, one of the queen’s learned associates, composed his stirring hymn, still used on Good Friday, the Vexilla Regis. (“The Royal Banners forward go; The Cross shines forth in mystic glow; Where He in flesh, our flesh who made; Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.”)
St. Gregory of Tours, who attended the wake of the dead queen, in 587, said her face shone bright. Miracles, too, were soon attributed to her intercession. But St. Radegund is best known as the majestic and long-suffering queen who was one of the leading women intellectuals of the early “Dark Ages.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara